SHOULD Sunderland demonstrate the same tenacity and bloody-mindedness in the coming season as they showed in the sweltering conditions of Suwon yesterday, they won’t go too far wrong.
Trailing 2-1 with just a couple of minutes left on the clock in the oppressive heat and humidity of the Big Bird Stadium, Sunderland’s Peace Cup looked to be in pieces.
But a confident Fraizer Campbell finish to a low Craig Gardner cross in the 88th minute drew Sunderland level in the third-place play-off and Ryan Noble snatched victory in time added on with an exhilarating strike good enough to win any game.
It ensured Sunderland got a modest share of prize money on offer from the Peace Cup, at least.
But, more than that, it totally transformed the mood of the players at the end of what has been a long and demanding trip.
“It certainly helps spirits,” admitted manager Martin O’Neill.
“But, regardless of the result, it was another good workout for the players and they will have benefited from it.”
O’Neill has his injury worries to consider from this trip – Simon Mignolet and David Vaughan did not make the squad yesterday, while centre-halves Carlos Cuellar and Wes Brown limped off in the first half.
But there was still a real sense of achievement at the final whistle after youthful Sunderland’s last-gasp win.
O’Neill fielded a strong side, but, without Mignolet, Ben Wilson took the gloves for the first hour and Jordan Pickford saw the remainder of the game through.
The central defensive injuries also ensured appearances for Louis Laing and John Egan, both young defenders doing well, while Noble’s cameo at the end stole the show.
It needed to, for Sunderland did not start particularly well and Dutch club Groningen were no slouches, dominating the opening exchanges
Despite that, Wilson did not have a save to make until the quarter-hour, and when he did, it was a good one – diving athletically to pluck Leandro Bacuna’s shot away from the top left-hand corner of goal.
Sunderland took the lead in the 18th minute from a free-kick earned when David Meyler was crudely bought down.
Gardner lofted in a cross which wasn’t dealt with, and Titus Bramble, six yards out, tried unsuccessfully to squeeze the ball past opposition defenders. But the ball rolled out to Connor Wickham, who tapped it home from close range.
Groningen pushed for an equaliser but lacked any precision in the couple of efforts they carved out before the half-hour.
But, just as Sunderland were starting to look comfortable, the Dutch equalised on 37 minutes through skipper and lone striker Hyun Jun Suk, who acrobatically flicked a ball up with his back to goal and produced an overhead kick which beat Wilson, diving to his left.
Six minutes later, Wilson was beaten again as pacy wideman Mitchell Schet cut in from the right, held off Kieran Richardson and drove a low shot across the Sunderland keeper and into the bottom corner of his goal.
Sunderland laboured hard to change the flow of the game in their favour in the second half.
But, up until the hour-mark, all they had to show for their efforts was a hopeful shot from Craig Lynch and a Gardner free-kick which went straight into the gloves of keeper Luciano.
Sunderland looked strong enough defensively, with Egan’s brawn and Laing’s brains backed up by Pickford’s awareness – the keeper making a couple of important parries.
It was at the opposite end where they needed to make an impact, though, and it looked as though they would struggle to do that as the frontmen toiled away in the heat.
Sunderland’s eagerness to go for goal made it an open game and when Noble was brought on with just over 15 minutes to go, it was the Dutch who were looking the likelier scorers.
Half-chances were all that Sunderland could create, but, in the 88th minute, they turned the game on its head when Noble held the ball up well, swept it into the path of Gardner on the right and his low centre was turned home inside the six-yard box by Campbell.
There was still time for Groningen to spoil the party, but, from an inch-perfect right-wing cross in the last minute, substitute Genero Zeefuik fired shockingly wide of an open goal.
And that set the game up for its dramatic finish.
Noble scorching after a ball just inside the Groningen half, held off a challenge as he bore down on goal, swerved to wrong-foot defenders and then absolutely smashed a shot which flew into the top left-hand corner of keeper Luciano’s goal from just outside the box.
It was a blistering end to a game played in sweltering conditions and, though elated, Sunderland looked absolutely spent as they dragged themselves off the pitch.
At least it won’t be this hot and humid in their next pre-season friendly, against Hartlepool on Friday night.
SUNDERLAND (4-5-1): Wilson (sub Pickford 63), Gardner, Brown (sub Egan 35), Cuellar (sub Bramble 12), Richardson (sub Noble 74), Lynch (sub Laing 60), Cattermole, Meyler, Colback, Campbell, Wickham. Subs: Turner, Knott, Reed, Deacon.
GRONINGEN (4-2-3-1): Luciano, Kappelhof, Ivens, Dijk, Magnasco, Kwakman, Kieftenbeld, Bacuna, de Leeuw, Schet (sub Zeefuik 86), Suk (sub Hiariej 66). Subs: Bizot, Bakker, Burnet, Sparv, Alilore, Moorsel, Keurntjes, Texeira, Kostic.